A long sea voyage
By James E. McEldowney

Have you ever heard of a convoy? A ship convoy is made up of many great big ships all going in the same direction. They go together for safety during wartime and have escort vessels with guns on them to protect them. It is fun to see a convoy. Each ship is longer than a foot-ball field. They plow through the water, each sending up a spray of water. They are scattered over the ocean like so many toy ships. They keep far enough apart so they will not run into each other even in a storm.

In one of the front ships is a man called the Commodore. He is in charge of all those ships. He has to "talk" with the captains of the ships in his convoy but he cannot use wireless because the enemy might be listening and come to know where the convoy is and try to sink the ships. Rather than wireless they use a powerful light. It flashes off and on, using short and long flashes. Every letter of the alphabet is made up of so many long and short flashes It is known as the Morse code. Using the bright light they spell out the instructions the Commodore wants to give to the captains of the ships. Sometimes they send messages using flags. A man raises or lowers a little flag held in each hand to spell out the alphabet. I used to know those flag signals. Now I have forgotten most of the letters.

I had to go to India during the war. We had lived there earlier, but now it was wartime and my family had to stay in the States until it was safe for them to join me. You can read about their trip out to India in the story "Gripsholm."

Soon after Barbara was born I had instructions to go to a certain city where I would receive more instructions. I could not even tell my family from what port I was sailing. When I arrived in the city I went and found that the ship I was to be on was the one the Commodore rode on.

Now I can tell you. We were to leave from New Orleans. While there I met another missionary also going on the boat who was headed out to China. He was a lovely southern man. While we were in New Orleans we had to go by street car. In those days the white people rode in one end of the street car and the black people rode in the other end. When we got on the street car all the seats for white people were taken. There were a couple of seats in the section for blacks. My friend said, "Jim, come on. Let's sit down." Almost at once the street car conductor came and told us to move. My friend was a little southern man who had a very southern accent. He said, "Well, if our brothers in the black section do not object, we will ride here." There was some chuckling among the black people. Had I said the same thing, using my mid-western accent, we would have been thrown off, but the conductor was confused and let us stay. That was the first time I had ever experienced segregation. Segregation divides people according to the color of their skin.

In New Orleans after we had gotten on the ship there was a delay. The gunman for the convoy had not returned to the ship. He was a young Englishman. The whole convoy was delayed half a day while they searched everywhere in New Orleans for him. Finally they found him. He was half drunk but the convey was still able to sail. When we got to Trinidad they took him off and he was court marshalled and given a sentence of two years of hard labor.

I was on that ship in the convoy for over a month. Along the way we were stopped by an American warship. It came alongside our ship. They shot out a line between the ships and took off bags of mail. I had written my family and wanted them to know I was all right. That letter never reached them.

Sometimes as we sailed along a ship might leave the convoy to go to a port. At other times our convoy would pick up a number of ships from another convoy headed in another direction. Usually a number of our ships would join that convoy. There was always something going on. We were in convoy only until the convoy had gone the full length of the north coast of South America and turned south. Then our ship had to go across the south Atlantic alone without convoy as we were headed for South Africa.

It was two weeks before we reached Cape Town, South Africa, and during those weeks all of the passengers had to take turns and stand guard two hours each day and night in assigned posts along the railing. We were to look carefully and report to the captain if we saw any sign of a submarine. Just before we reached Cape Town someone reported a submarine and we began going in circles and weaving back and forth. That continued most of the night. We escaped but a British transport in the same area was torpedoed. I saw it a few days later tied up at the dock. There was a big hole in the side of the ship where a torpedo had struck but the ship did not sink. It made it to port.

When I reached Cape Town, I was to experience more segregation. Among our passengers were five well-trained black officers who were being sent by the American government to Ethiopia to train pilots and help the Emperor. In Cape Town the rest of us passengers were sent to one of the best hotels in the city. It was marked " for whites only." Blacks were supposed to go to some very inferior hotels reserved for blacks only. But these black officers were on American government business and it became amost a diplomatic affair. After two or three hours word came for them to go to an American hostel in the city where American soldiers and sailors lived together in barracks.

The head minister of the Anglican Church heard how these very fine black men had been refused a proper place to stay and the next Sunday he invited all five of them to come to his cathedral, which was for whites only, and he gave them an honored place to sit. I was proud of him for showing them that dignity.

After I had been in Cape Town three weeks and I had not found a way to go on to India, I was told to go to Durban, across South Africa on the east coast. Even on the trains there was segregation and the African black people had to ride in very poor cars. But I found the trip an exciting adventure.

In Durban I was finally able to get passage to India. Before we left I went out to some black churches. One had been built near the ocean. It was unusual. Years before there had been a volcano eruption when an island, Krakatau in Indonesia, had been blown into the sky. The eruption filled the air with dust and dirt that drifted around the world for some months. Some of the dirt fell on ocean waters. Gradually it was churned up into floating balls, rock shaped, and over the years many had come to the coast of Africa. People called them pumice. The black people had used pumice for the roof of their church. It was quite a historic building.

On the way north from Durban we were in another convoy. That convoy had small escort vessels that could travel only four knots an hour (about five miles an hour). That meant that all of the ships had to travel at that speed.

The ship was an old one, used in India-Africa trade. We had more than 100 passengers. My cabin was down near the engine room and was so hot that at night I brought the bedspread up on deck and found a safe spot to lie down. When I woke up in the morning I was so grateful that we had made it safely through the night that I sang, "When morning gilds the skies, my heart awakening cries, may Jesus Christ be praised!" Then when we sat down to breakfast we were served cooked cereal. Each morning as I received my bowl of cereal I would take my spoon and lift out the numerous grubs that had been cooked in it and stack them along the top of my bowl. Then I ate the cereal and was thankful for it.

One day when I was playing deck tennis at the back of the ship, the table suddenly seemed to stand on edge. Actually the ship began sharp maneuvers for the Captain had seen an airplane off in the distance. He guessed that it was a Japanese plane from a submarine.

That night one of the nurses on board our ship became desperately ill and the captain asked permission from the Commodore to leave the convoy and rush ahead to get her to a hospital in Mombassa. We reached there two days ahead of the convoy. When the convoy caught up with us we were told that one of the ships had been sunk by the Japanese submarine.

For more than two months I had been on the way and I had not heard from my family, nor had I been able to receive word from them. I decided to send a cable. In it I did not say where I was or where I was going but I merely reported that all was well. In a couple of days I received a reply from Ruth giving the same information about the family. Then two police officers came to the ship to arrest me for sending a cable. I pointed out the nature of the communication and that if it had been against the law to send the cable, those in the cable-office should have informed me. That was the last I heard about it.

Mombassa is a wonderful harbor. You enter it between beds of coral. The coral is brilliantly colored red, blue, yellow and green. Once inside the harbor one is very safe.

When we left Mombassa we had to cross the Indian Ocean without convoy or escort. After two weeks we were escorted through the locks into the inner harbor at Bombay, India. There along the dock were two large ships, waiting to take many people from India to America and Europe. We tied up and the agent met me and said I could not have come at a more inconvenient time. All the hotels and guest houses were crowded with people waiting to get on those ships. The best he could offer was a place on his office floor, so I spent the night in his office. Wartime train service was reserved for the army so it was a few days before I could leave for Jabalpur. I had been three and a half months on the way. The agent said he would send a cable to Ruth and tell her I had arrived, but he forgot and it was a week before he sent it. By that time I had written to her that all was well, but she would not get that letter for a month.

Soon after I left Bombay there was a terrific explosion. A ship had entered the inner harbor with a load of explosives. It should not have been permitted in. I had hardly reached Jabalpur when that ship blew up. It scattered bits of ship for miles around and sank 26 ships including the one I had come on. A report of it was in the Reader's Digest about that time. How fortunate I was to have left Bombay when I did.

Now as I recall that trip I am amused because in Cape Town I had gone with Dr.Stewart, a botanist, to the University of South Africa. Stewart had sent many plants from India to the University over the years and they welcomed him. While I was there I saw some beautiful Crepe Myrtle bushes and I asked for a small one to take to India. I looked forward to plant it on the campus. All the way across South Africa and up the coast and across to India I had taken care of that plant. Then when I got to the campus I discovered that the campus was alive with Crepe Myrtle. It had been there all the time but I had never seen it. There is a lesson in that story. We should appreciate what is all around us. I was more than glad to be in India once more and begin my work at the college right away. [by James E. McEldowney, Spring 1997]

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